Top of Page ILLUMINATING AND THINKING ABOUT THE SERMON
Look at the many ways we in society treat others as lepers. We find it very easy to push people away, to run away from people and to not include people in our world and or community because we think they are somehow unclean.
The whole theme of these words is not only about the threat of loosing your life but also losing all contact with your community. We have the story of Naaman, the Aramaean (Syrian) military officer, had a good life. He had been victorious over Israel and was beloved by Aram, his king. Somewhere in his campaigns he contracted mesora, which is translated as leprosy. In verse 1 teshu'ah is translated "victory," but it is also the most common word for "salvation." This double entendre implies Naaman is eligible, not only to be used for victory, but also to be included in the salvation story as told by Israel's God. God has granted him a victory. Might God also grant him restoration to community?
Who knows where the help is? A little captured girl does. She says, "The prophet who is in Samaria has the power to cleanse you." He makes the journey with permission from his king and gifts to Israel's king. Israel's king tears his clothing in fear and desperation at Naaman's request. Elisha heard of this and said," Let him come now to me, that he might know that there is a prophet in Israel." All Naaman's credentials and gifts are of no importance to Elisha. Elisha does not even meet him, but rather sends his servant to direct him to bathe in the Jordan. Naaman is confused and outraged. He almost misses his salvation by looking only to military might and palaces for what he needs. His servants reason with him. Again, help comes from beneath his station in life. He relents and goes swimming in the Jordan! The miracle occurs. His flesh was restored to that of a "little boy" (na'ar qaton). What began with a little girl advising him has made a little child of the great warrior Naaman. The gift of cleansing included his healing and salvation.
This required neither the power of his king nor Israel's king. It did not require him to give gifts or great pomp and ceremony to God. A little child shall lead them is true once again.
Then, in our gospel reading, we turn to a similar drama. The Marcan event is set up in the first verse of this text. A man, who had been separated from the community by his disease, running the risk of being stoned to death, approaches another human being. He breaks the morbid covenant of ostracism that keeps him safe from attack by those who fear catching the dreaded disease. Instead of crying, "Unclean! Unclean!" and taking a wide path around Jesus' followers he directly approaches Jesus and falls upon his knees proclaiming, "You can cleanse me if you will." The Greek word, katharisai, is used, from which we get the word, "catharsis," meaning to go through a cleansing process or ordeal.
We often label people as unclean in our lives. We label people in all kinds of ways. We call with derision other people liberals or conservatives. We certainly have started calling people racist or Nazis or White Supremacist almost daily. On the other side we call people socialist or communist or the newest terms Antifa which is short for anti-fascists. The term is used to define a broad group of people whose political beliefs lean toward the left -- often the far left. We are good at excluding people because of disease or ideology or any other excuse. Look at the how panicked we became over HIV just twenty years ago. We seem to automatically yell at the top of our lungs unclean, unclean.
Leprosy in biblical times was any skin disorder. The reality of this living death reduced a human being to living in the shadows and on the edges of human nurture. One could live in this state for 20 to 30 years. The Hebrew word used in Leviticus 13 is tsaraath. It was also used to describe mold or fungus on a garment, dry rot in wood, and lichen on a stone. In human terms it covered any progressive skin disease. The leper was banished from the fellowship of humankind, was required to wear torn clothing, a bare head, a covering upon his or her upper lip, and must cry as he or she moved through a community, "Unclean!" In the middle ages the priest would lead the leper into the church and read the burial service over him or her. The person was treated as already dead though still alive. There were leper "squints" cut into the walls of the churches through which the leper might look while the service was being conducted. There were proscribed actions to be taken by any leper who became well, but all knew leprosy was incurable.
Verse 41 states, "Jesus felt sorry for the man." The King James translation reads, "His bowels were moved with compassion." We speak of compassion coming from the heart, but in Hebrew thought compassion comes from the gut. The leper asks Jesus to make a choice. Whether our cleansing includes physical healing is always Jesus' choice. The leper understood this. Naaman who was cured of his leprosy (2 Kings 5:1-14) almost missed his cleansing because what he was asked to do was beneath him. Wash in the Jordan! There were rivers in Syria. His servant reminded him that he would have gladly fought an enemy to be cleansed, so why not do what you are told to do? In both cases the cleansing would be a gift from God, not a response to some human worthiness.
The high point of the text occurs when Jesus reaches out and touches the leper. Either they will both be unclean, or a miracle will occur. Which is the greater miracle? Jesus healing a man of leprosy or Jesus reaching out and touching him before he was healed? Both occurred. Now he must meet the requirements of the law to be restored by the priests to his family and community. Cleansing that results in healing is not smoke and mirrors. The doctor whose medicine could not effect a cure can certify a remission of disease that occurs over a period of time or even spontaneously. God's gifts of healing are given to the one needing healing, and as such are not badges of favoritism to be flaunted before others. There is no gift of healing whereby the one receiving it has sovereignty over the diseases of others, if there was then that person should spend his or her life systematically emptying the hospitals of the world. About Jesus alone is this statement true: "You can heal me if you will." For the rest of us, being faithful to pray for one another and availing ourselves of the best medical treatments for our diseases is our destiny. The lightning at midnight might come in our crisis, but it is not because of our worthiness, rather, it is because off God's sovereign will. Therefore, bragging does not become one upon whom God has had mercy. One does not understand why and should not pretend to know.
But the man did tell. He became a preacher of the good news. As a result of his witness, Jesus could no longer enter the towns of the region. He had become famous for what he did physically for the leper and the whole world pursued him for what they might get from him. The one who said, "Take up your cross and follow me." was now being hunted and hounded by people who heard his call to repent and ignored it. God does not use miracles to make converts. Most of the people in the Bible who received a miracle were like the man who looked into the mirror and saw his face, but quickly forgot what he saw as he walked away.
Both texts imply that one's search is not over until you get to God. Naaman did not know whom he was looking for when he went to Israel and the New Testament leper was sure he had found the right person but was unsure if he was willing to cleanse him. The stories dovetail in the profound truth that God alone holds our lives in his hands. God will always save us and cleanse us. Never doubt God's willingness or his ability. Humbly receive the gift of healing in full confidence.
Search out the many ways we make people modern day lepers. Search out and highlight the many ways we call others unclean.
Top of Page ILLUSTRATING THE SERMON
Leprosy, also known as Hansen's disease (HD), is a long-term infection by the bacterium Mycobacterium leprae or Mycobacterium lepromatosis. Initially, infections are without symptoms and typically remain this way for 5 to 20 years. Symptoms that develop include granulomas of the nerves, respiratory tract, skin, and eyes. This may result in a lack of ability to feel pain, thus loss of parts of extremities due to repeated injuries or infection due to unnoticed wounds. Weakness and poor eyesight may also be present.
Leprosy is spread between people. This is thought to occur through a cough or contact with fluid from the nose of an infected person. Leprosy occurs more commonly among those living in poverty. Contrary to popular belief, it is not highly contagious. The two main types of disease are based on the number of bacteria present: paucibacillary and multibacillary. The two types are differentiated by the number of poorly pigmented, numb skin patches present, with paucibacillary having five or fewer and multibacillary having more than five. The diagnosis is confirmed by finding acid-fast bacilli in a biopsy of the skin or by detecting the DNA using polymerase chain reaction.
Leprosy is curable with a treatment known as multidrug therapy. Treatment for paucibacillary leprosy is with the medications dapsone and rifampicin for six months. Treatment for multibacillary leprosy consists of rifampicin, dapsone, and clofazimine for 12 months. A number of other antibiotics may also be used. These treatments are provided free of charge by the World Health Organization. Globally in 2012, the number of chronic cases of leprosy was 189,000, down from some 5.2 million in the 1980s. The number of new cases was 230,000. Most new cases occur in 16 countries, with India accounting for more than half. In the past 20 years, 16 million people worldwide have been cured of leprosy. About 200 cases are reported per year in the United States.
Leprosy has affected humanity for thousands of years. The disease takes its name from the Latin word lepra, while the term "Hansen's disease" is named after the physician Gerhard Armauer Hansen. Separating people by placing them in leper colonies still occurs in places such as India, China, and Africa. However, most colonies have closed, since leprosy is not very contagious. Social stigma has been associated with leprosy for much of history, which continues to be a barrier to self-reporting and early treatment. Some consider the word "leper" offensive, preferring the phrase "person affected with leprosy". It is classified as a neglected tropical disease. World Leprosy Day was started in 1954 to draw awareness to those affected by leprosy.
Naaman and the New Testament leper received their requests from God. It was God's will to cleanse and heal them. Now they faced the daunting responsibility of responding to their miracles. What is required? To whom much is given much is required. It is much easier to kick against the goads and position oneself as one neglected by God or even view God as an adversary than it is to walk humbly with one's God. Giftedness is a state of being that must be recognized as a debt of gratitude owed to God and expressed in service to others. When God gives one what one asks for a renewed and deeper relationship is possible. It is awesome to have one's request be within the will of God for one's life.
Can one identify with Naaman and the Leper in the times before their encounters with God? An example from my ministry is the Williams family. Simple folks raised Richard in the North Georgia mountains. When Richard was four years of age he contracted polio. His parents knew he was sick and lovingly cared for him, but this did not include a trip to a doctor. He lost the use of his legs and some of the motor skills in his hands. He would pull himself across the floor of their home and his siblings would ride him in a wagon in the yard. Seven long years passed. One day the father returned from town with a radio. At night they would gather around and listen to the world beyond their isolation. One day Richard listened to President Franklin Roosevelt talk about his ordeal with polio and his determination to help others through a new hospital being built in Warm Springs, Georgia. Richard turned to his mother and said, "That sounds like what happened to me." She dismissed it and went about her business, but this eleven year old wrote a letter to the President of the United States asking for more information and help. In a few days a county health nurse appeared at the door of the Williams' home. Richard was evaluated and accepted for treatment at the new facility for polio victims. He met Audrey, a child prodigy on the piano until polio robbed her hands of their skills, who became his wife. He learned accounting because he knew he would have to make a living with his mind. Richard and Audrey Williams died within a day of each other in the late spring of 2002. The letter he received from President Roosevelt in response to his request was one of his treasured keepsakes. It represented the beginning of his life. Naaman and the leper had similar events upon which their lives turned for the best.
The phrase, "Then Jesus came," explains the transformation of many lives and circumstances. Women were treated as property in New Testament times; they went from their father's house to their husband's house. If their father or husband died, they were at the mercy of other male relatives, or if they were so lucky, they had a son
who would take them in. "Then Jesus came" and elevated women to their proper place in human society with his view expressed by St. Paul, "There is neither male nor female in Christ." Certain diseases were viewed as so vile that the one bearing them were cut off from all human contact. They were left hopeless and alone. "Then Jesus came" touching lepers, healing issues of blood, and raising the dead. There is no circumstance of suffering, trial, or tragedy that can prevent Jesus' coming into the situation. The statement "then Jesus came" is the turning point of all Christian testimonies.
The leper was tenacious. He saw clearly what he must do. He had to get himself in front of Jesus. He had to present his case by his presence. Despite the cultural and cultic obstacles set up to keep him out of sight and out of mind this leper took a leap of faith. Nothing was ever the same again. Now he was left with the question, "Why me?" He could have gone in the direction of believing in his own worthiness and could have become proud of God's wisdom in choosing to heal him and even more despising of those suffering with leprosy that were not yet healed. He went in the direction of profound gratitude and became a witness to God's graciousness, encouraging others to join him at Jesus' feet. Receive the gift humbly. God takes no partners. We are always one beggar sharing with other beggars the Bread of Life.
One possibility in any illness or disease is that it is one's appointed time to die. It is appointed unto all humankind once to die, then judgment. To go to Jesus and prayerfully ask to be restored is to open the possibility of having it revealed that this is the disease that will liberate one from this earthly body and free one to enter our Father's house. God is not jealous with God's wisdom. If one asks, God in his way will reveal what "time" it truly is in one's life. What if God does not heal in the way one wants? Then God's Spirit will be sufficient in every case to see one through to glory. One can ask for anything one wants, but one's prayer is tempered by "in Jesus' name." He will answer in the affirmative all of one's prayer that is the will of God and forgive with a breath of kindness the parts that fall outside God's perfect will for one's life. For many the dread of not knowing is better than the certainty one can acquire kneeling at Jesus' feet. Jesus' words are, "Fear not! Come unto me." The leper did and that made all the difference in his life.
Life must be mastered. E.Stanley Jones once wrote, "At the heart of every earthly thing there is a sting, there is a sting." Later, having lived longer and walked with God farther, he added, "When every earthly thing / Leaves its bitter sting, / My heart has learned to sing!" (E.Stanley Jones, Christ and Human Suffering [Abingdon Press, 1933], p.122).
Why would Jesus treat the leper as a human being? "If we take people as they are, we make them worse. If we treat them as if they were what they ought to be, we help them become what they are capable of becoming." (Victor Frankl, The Doctor and the Soul [Alfred A. Knopf, 1955], pp. 104-5).
The rogue elephant is only a normal elephant that has been cut out of the herd by the younger males in the herd. He seeks to destroy everything in his frustration at not being a part of the herd anymore.
It matters what one sees. "In the old TV series "The Andy Griffin show," there occurred an unforgettable episode. Otis, the town drunk, rides into the town of Mayberry slightly inebriated—so much so that he thinks the cow he is riding is a mule. When his condition is noticed, Barney Fife, the chief deputy, and Sheriff Andy place him in a jail cell, which is his second home. While Otis is in jail, Barney, who has received a book on psychology through the "Learn-a-Month Club," determines to bring treatment to Otis. In the book is one white page on which there is a huge blob of black ink. Showing this to Otis, Barney says, "Tell me what you see." Otis replies," It looks like a bat to me." With disgust Barney shouts," That's the trouble with you, Otis! You see a bat but I see a butterfly!" (Thomas Whiting, Don't Be Afraid of the Dark, Bethany Press, 1970, p.55).
What did Jesus see? A leper? Yes, but a leper loved by God. What one sees makes all the difference in the world when the time comes, and one has to decide what one will do.
Even though leprosy was generally considered to be a disease that a person did not recover from, that particular leper refused to give up hope. In the August 2002 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, researchers at Yale University suggest that maintaining a positive attitude is an even more important factor to prolonging life than other factors, such as wealth, gender, or cholesterol levels. In a study of 660 people, covering a period of 25 years, researchers compared the people's responses to such statements as "Things keep getting worse as I get older," with their length of life. People who strongly disagreed with such statements lived noticeably longer. In fact, the study indicated that the average positive thinker lived about 7 ½ years longer than a more negative person.
A woman in Cleona, PA, wished that the Jehovah's Witnesses would keep their faith quieter. After repeatedly asking representatives from the nearby Kingdom Hall to not bother her, she continued to have Jehovah's Witnesses ringing her doorbell. Finally, she decided the only way to stop the problem was to sue them. She succeeded in her effort, winning a $632 judgment against a Jehovah's Witness who continued to show up at her house after she had asked him not to come back. Along her 300-foot driveway, she had eight "no trespassing" signs and three "beware of the dog" signs. The woman indicated that her main concern is that she works a late shift, and she didn't want people waking her up in the middle of the day when she's trying to sleep.
When the people in the village first saw the cleansed leper, they must have wondered if he was truly free from the disease, or if they still risked some contamination if they came into contact with him. In the church, one of the concerns people have about contamination isn't leprosy, but the germs they fear they'll receive by sharing in a common cup at communion. Canadian cardiologist David Gould says that sipping from a common cup is healthier than sharing in the sacrament by means of intinction. He determined that the risk is greater because the hand contains more germs than the mouth does. But he points out that if communion cups were truly a danger, there would be cases of mass infection, which are heretofore unknown. Gould concludes that on the whole, sharing in communion
at church is extremely safe. He suggests that there is a much greater risk of becoming infected by stray airborne germs.
Although she wasn't necessarily trying to, a former librarian at the University of Minnesota did a decent job of keeping her new bookstore a secret. She set up a shop with about 1000 used books, mainly from her own personal collection. But the store was a bit out of the way, and she didn't spend much on advertising. Even when people find her establishment, she's sometimes reluctant to sell. The store owner admits, "The first day, a woman walked in and bought three books, and I about had a stroke. This bookstore is hard to find, and once you get here, it's almost impossible to buy anything!"
Even if the leper had said nothing, it would have been difficult for him to keep his healing a secret, because the townspeople could have seen for themselves what had happened. In Africa, many churches do not have walls. They tend to be rather simply structures that have only roofs to shield the worshipers from the hot sun. As a result, when Christians gather in the church for services, village members who are not Christians often stand around outside the church to look and listen to what is going on. Quite often, when those villagers witness what God is doing for those Christians, they step in under the roof and become a part of the church.
If the secret about Jesus is going to be let out of the bag to people in the world today, it is going to require a multitude of languages. At present, the languages with the most native speakers are Chinese Mandarin (874 million), Hindi (366 million), English (341 million), Spanish (322 million), and Bengali (207 million).
Just like that leper was kept on the fringes of society, there are many in our world today who are kept on the margins. Of the 5.2 million people who live in Finland, only about 7000 of them are part of the Sami people. The Sami, who are frequently referred to as Laplanders, primarily live above the Arctic Circle in Finland, Norway, Sweden, and Russia. In all, there are about 70,000. But until recently, although many of the Sami can receive television signals, there were no programs in their native language. Starting early last year, Finland began to air a nine-minute TV news bulletin in the Sami language. The program features information about the culture, politics, and economics of the Lapland, which is not often covered in the usual news broadcasts.
In addition to that leper, that are many people across the United States who suffer from skin problems. Scientists at the University of Delaware's Center for Climatic Research developed an index to monitor which cities have the itchiest people. The high scores were generally registered by municipalities that have consistently low relative humidity levels. The itchiest city of all was Flagstaff, Arizona. The other cities that made the top ten were Albuquerque, New Mexico; Billings, Montana; Big Piney, Wyoming; Colorado Springs, Colorado; Cheyenne, Wyoming; Denver, Colorado; Great Falls, Montana; Rapid City, South Dakota; and Wendover, Utah.
Some people end up keeping their thoughts a secret even when they're not trying to do so. A 16-year-old girl botched an attempted bank robbery of a branch of the HSBC bank in Rochester, NY. Her attempted heist fell apart when the teller wasn't able to decipher her holdup note. The handwriting on the note was so illegible that the teller had to pass it around to other tellers to help her understand what it said. By the time the teenager was handed a bag of money, it was almost closing time, and she ended up getting locked in the foyer until the police arrived and apprehended her.
When some people are happy about the good things in their lives, they just can't keep it to themselves. A man in Berlin, Germany, was evicted from his apartment last year. The other residents complained that he laughed too much.
"Three may keep a secret, if two of them are dead" (Benjamin Franklin).
"It is a secret in the Oxford sense: you may tell it to only one person at a time" (British philosopher Oliver Franks). A sixty-something woman remembers a childhood Christmas. It was the first year she earned her own money for gifts—picking strawberries at five cents a quart. She saved her nickels and spent it on the most lavish gift she could imagine for her mother—a fuchsia pink chenille robe with large yellow, blue and white flowers all over it.
On Christmas morning, the girl waited expectantly, only to watch her mother open the box, and with no expression of thanks, close the box and put it back under the tree. A few days later, the box was put on the very top shelf of the closet, never to be taken down. That mother lived the rest of her life never using the gift her little girl had given.
"A person who is humble…knows the stuff—earth—of which they are made: a talent here, a weakness there, a degree of competency here, a blunder there. Humble persons know what they are and what they aren't…and they never confuse the two" (Joan Chittister, Seeing with Our Souls: Monastic Wisdom for Every Day [Franklin, Wisconsin, and Chicago: Sheed & Ward, 2002], p. 25).
In the poem, Elias, Thomas Merton struggles with the desire to be a prophet. As the poem moves to the fourth variation, Merton has accepted the fact that he is not: "Under the blunt pine / I who am not sent / Remain. The pathway dies, / The journey has begun" (Qtd. in Robert Waldron, Poetry as Prayer: Thomas Merton [Boston: Pauline Books and Media, 2000], p. 67).
Reinhold Niebuhr said, "The final enigma of history is therefore not how the righteous will gain victory over the unrighteous, but how the evil in every good and the unrighteousness of the righteous is to be overcome.
At Harvard University this year one of the speakers was Zayed Yasin, who delivered a commencement speech called "Of Faith and Citizenship: My American Jihad." Harvard, a bastion of open thinking, found among its community some people who wanted to stop the speech because of its title. Wisdom prevailed, and no one was able to prevent a Muslim from talking about the meaning of an Arabic word. Before that word was hijacked along with those planes on September 11, the word meant something quite religious. In the Koran, jihad refers to the internal struggle with oneself to do what is right.
I remember one of the most poignant moments of my life with my own father. He died three years ago August 12. Donald Osterhoudt was a textile worker who rose to be a manager of a textile factory. Because he did not join the union as the garment industry unionized and moved south, and because he was on the bottom ring of management his whole life, he had no retirement protections. At age 59 and three quarters, the company for which he had worked almost 30 years, fired him. He usually bowled on Tuesday nights only. This was a Friday. He went bowling that night. My mother describes it as a bizarre evening. He went bowling and then he lined up all his bowling trophies, which were quite a few. He sat in his chair and looked at them. He didn't say anything, which was very rare.
Top of Page prayers (WorshipAid)
Leader: I will praise you to the heights, O Lord.
People: For you have raised me up, you have not let my foes rejoice over me.
Leader: O Lord my God, I cried to you for help, and you healed me.
People: You have lifted me up from among those who sink into oblivion; you have given me life.
Leader: Sing praises to the Lord and give thanks to his holy name.
People: We praise you, O Lord! Thanks be to your holy name!
Gracious Lord, too often we seek healing from sources other than your heavenly care. We search for answers everywhere but your grace. Like Naaman of old, we are surprised and appalled, to find that the way toward healing is so close and so simple. Forgive us; reorient our hearts and minds so that we would see your hand in our victories and your everlasting love in our joys. In Christ we pray, Amen.
Countless times you have cleansed us, O Lord. You have raised us up from the pits of oblivion, and for this we are truly grateful. Accept these offerings as tokens of our gratitude, and we pray that you would guide the use of these offerings to deliver others from adversity. Sanctify each penny, so that it would do good in the world. And we pray that you would sanctify every one of us—that we may also do good. In Jesus' name we pray, Amen.
God of Mercy, we come before you today with many ailments. We are afflicted in our bodies, in our minds, and in our spirits. We suffer both individually and as a culture, nation and world. Just as there are many ways in which we are afflicted, there are various ways in which we may be healed. Some ailments are healed by forgiveness, some by surgery, and others by chemicals and medicines. But all healing comes from one source, O God, and it is to be found in your grace.
We pray that you would extend that grace upon us today, upon our loved ones, and even upon our enemies. Wherever there is affliction, we pray that you would ease it. Lift those who suffer from sickness, that their bodies, minds and spirits would turn from pain to joy. Lift those who suffer at the hands of others and deliver their oppressors from the sin in which they, too, are enslaved. Have pity on us all, O Lord, and wash us clean. In Christ we pray, Amen.